Local theatergoers have been simply overwhelmed by the volume: no less than 28 separate productions in October--just under one new opening a day on average. At least as many more are slated to open between now and the end of the year. It's the official high water mark of the fall season.
When Shakespeare wrote, "And the rain it raineth every day," he didn't know the half of it.
With bumbershoot and hip waders, we set forth to view the latest changes.
The strongest show of the week had the strongest ensemble as well, thanks to Dr. Patricia Caple's more than capable direction. This University Theatre production captures the grit, friction, sweat and small-time hustles of playwright August Wilson's inner-city Pittsburgh gypsy cab station in the late 1970s.
The cracked, worn black and white linoleum of John C. McIlwee's marvelously evocative set defines the dingy, run-down office of a gas station gone bust. Such is the current world headquarters of Becker's Car Service, an ad-hoc collection, for the most part, of otherwise unemployed African-American men with cars in various states of repair, waiting for the ancient pay phone on the wall to ring up their next fare.
In the time in between, they play checkers, catch a few winks on a busted vinyl couch and examine the latest men's magazines for edifying content.
But mainly, they mouth off to one another. And no one does it more than Turnbo, a grizzled old sinner whose predilection for prying sordid details out of unwilling or innocent passers-by is only exceeded by the delight he takes in broadcasting the news he finds. Ron Foreman digs into the role of the elder weasel who noses into people's business, taking time out only to try to put a lecher's hand on the girlfriend of Youngblood, a fellow cabbie.
C.J. McBath gives an earnest performance as Youngblood, a man fighting the urban current, trying to better himself. But Youngblood and Turnbo's conflicts pale in comparison to those between Becker and his son, Booster. In this production, the large, expressive qualities in Sedrick Dickens' expansive performance as father Becker are appropriately echoed in Damion Sledge's turn as Booster. They're a good match; their work together indicates that, for all the present conflict, Booster truly is his father's son.
But since each blames the other for the death of Becker's wife, their relationship is as threatened as the cab station itself. In the name of urban renewal, the city of Pittsburgh has accellerated its plans to demolish the whole block on which the building sits. How this rag-tag group of curt, blunt and earthy men face this and other threats make Jitney a work well worth seeing.
The largest performance in this Peace College production didn't come from either guest artists Jay O'Berski or Roman Pearah. Instead, it came from Sonya Leigh Drum's stark, surreal, nightmarish set.
Picture if you will: Three square wooden platforms are literally perched above a swirling, stage-wide volcanic miasma of reds, yellows and ambers. (Lighting designer Paul Marsland only adds to the turbulence of the roiling mass.) The platforms give the appearance of wooden docks placed above a hellish river--but their grayish-black appearance suggests wood well burned, and a surface by now little more than charcoal.
Three stylish red wooden high back chairs occupy the topmost platform, along with a spotlit table on which a vase with orchids stands. The rest of the Peace College stage is blackness--except for a single, immense, red-pupilled eye staring balefully out from between golden lids at center stage, suspended two-thirds of the way up the back wall of the theater.
The red eye stares out at the audience, above the performers, throughout the play. It's an embodiment of the "evil eye," that legendary harbinger of misfortune borne of covetousness, and it stretches across at least a quarter of the stage.
How do you keep something like that from perpetually upstaging you? The Peace production's answer: unsuccessfully.
Kenny Gannon's direction marries two words rarely placed side by side: brisk and Ibsen. His characters rapidly skate away on what is apparently the literal edge of the abyss. The only time any of them take note that they're on a rapidly eroding edge comes in climactic scenes between O'Berski's Alfred, a writer-philosopher who has decided to forsake his vocation, and Gina Kelly as Rita, his temperamental wife.
Since he's just returned from a sabbatical, the obsessive, possessive Gina attempts to woo him back into her arms with sexually suggestive poses made from the floor of the topmost platform. As her legs spread open, her long dark hair cascades over the side of the platform into the nothingness beneath.
When he proves unwilling to succumb to her invitations, she goads him into an embrace he all but steps off into the fiery depths to avoid.
But in this uneven production, neither Kelly nor Heather Mercer (as Alfred's step-sister, Asta) really possesses the artistic seasoning to pull off their respective roles. Of the two, Mercer's Asta is more convincing, in both her incest-tinged intimacies with step-brother Alfred and her ultimately brittle coldness when her character must forsake all the family she has ever known.
But a Rita out of her depths never convincingly establishes the deadly gravitational pull of a central relationship based on voracious emotional need. The death of their crippled child--evocatively represented in Glenn Mehrbach's original score and soundtrack--portends the unraveling of a relationship and disclosure of the lies and the abyss contained therein. That being the case, the wife and husband's union actually needs to show up to start with. It remained too hypothetical in this not entirely successful acting exercise.